Tuesday, April 14, 2009

If Easter is a time of hope, what hope for the Communion?

I am hopeful for the Anglican Communion, even as reality tells me that it has problems. I think the 'big picture' unfolding may be this: for a long time Anglicans have been confused about the role of doctrine in the life of Anglican churches, but that is about to change. Our confusion stems from twin forces, one a force promoting experimentation and envelope pushing, the other a force promoting conflict avoidance (meaning: experimenters and envelope pushers were not disciplined).

In the nineteenth century the Oxford Movement, then later anglo-catholics pushed the envelope of ritualism and novel interpretation of the 39 Articles. Though there was a trial or two, the church as a whole did not engage in conflict resolution which concluded with 'this is Anglican, this is not'. However welcome some elements of anglo-catholicism to the whole church have proved to be, we welcomed something into our life which has been unhelpful in the long run: we determined our character was to be diverse.

Then in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there has been considerable unchecked theological experimentation with its roll-call of Cupitt, Spong, the early John A.T. Robinson, and David Jenkins. In this experimentation anything and everything may be questioned, turned on its head, and disbelieved or believed as the individual chooses. Through this we determined that our character is to be diverse without limits.

But a combination of factors in the early twentieth century are causing Anglican soul searching. The massive protest against the ordination of Gene Robinson in 2003, however exaggerated, homophobically driven, or even sheerly hypocritical it has been according to its critics, has registered in the minds of Anglican leaders. That the protest has been strongly driven from Africa has emphasised, perhaps as no other thing might ever have done, that the centres of popular Anglicanism are not London or New York but Lagos and Kampala. Can Anglicanism ignore the voices of its people in favour of the voices of its elite? Then there are factors of secularism, Islamism, and the New Atheism: together they focus attention on what Anglicans believe. In what way is Anglican belief different from such -isms, none of which offers concordance with Anglican belief in the way in which in the past (say) Communism, Humanism, and even 'a-theism' could be held together by the Spongs, Cupitts, Robinsons etc.

What is emerging, I suggest, is a new Anglicanism which is setting its character to be limits-to-diversity. One official, formal sign of this new character is the work towards an Anglican Covenant. One unofficial (or, not yet official) sign is the number of 'noes' emerging in TEC during the consent process for the so-called 'Buddhist bishop-elect' Ken Thew Forrester. Moderate bishops in TEC are saying through their negative responses that there are limits to the diversity of what Anglicans may believe.

Another sign, incidentally, but less obvious to the eye is this: where are the English bishops who believe next to nothing of the orthodox creeds? I suggest there are none (or, at least, none being visible). Contrast a generation or two ago when one or more bishops was good for a naff headline at Christmas or Easter denying the Virgin Birth or the physical resurrection.

An Anglican Communion resolute about applying limits to diversity has many issues to sort out, including human sexuality with special respect to North America, orders of ministry with special respect to Sydney, and the harmony of proponents and opponents of ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopacy. But, at least as it works on these issues, it will not be doing so as a complete jellyfish as in the past.

But watch for this factor at work in our future. To recognise the importance of limits to diversity is to raise the question, what are those limits? who defines those limits? on what grounds are limits defined? These questions are questions of doctrine. The future of the Anglican Communion will be a future in which doctrine plays a more significant role than it has played since, arguably, the sixteenth century. We found a way then to negotiate between extreme doctrinal forces. We will find it again - that's in our DNA - but will we subsequently lose our way again?


Anonymous said...

The other factor to bear in mind is that "North Atlantic"/"Western" Anglicanism is only half the size numerically it was a generation ago, while Global South Anglicanism has kept growing, sometimes rapidly. The North/West still has the money (endowments) but seems increasingly less relevant to the burgeoning populations of East Africa and Nigeria. This won't stop the Anericans trying to buy influence in Africa, as they are presently seeking to do through the mega-wealthy Trinity Wall Street fund, putting money and goods into promoting liberal theological education in Africa. Tutu is a product of 1960s liberal theological education in London, and Tec still hopes it can do with money what it can't do with prayer. Remember the brouhaha over Malawi and the attempt to import a liberal Englishman to be bishop. Or observe how Giles Fraser, the English Scourge of the Fundies, has now bizarrely become a Canon of a (very poor) West African church. Whence this sudden liberal zeal for "evangelizing" the Dark Continent?
The British Anglican bishops do seem more orthodox than 20 years ago, while the Americans are off the wall. This is partly Carey's influence, and perhaps the recognition that Islam increasingly dominates public discourse about religion in a secular, apathetic society such as modern Britain. The 1960s liberal Jesus (sans deity, sans cross, sans resurrection) may not be all that different from the (equally unhistorical) prophet Isa promoted by 'moderate' Islam: a teacher of monotheism and ethics.
Metaphors aside, churches of course don't have DNA (unless one is Roman Catholic or Orthodox and believes in the indefectibility of the Church or the living voice of Holy Tradition): we have a tradition of praying and thinking about the Scriptures. We can live it out and pass it on to the next generation; or in the Johannine metaphor, the branch can be separated, then dessicated and fruitless.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Anonymous ... and, indeed, an odd story re Fraser's canonry!